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Between Two Pines

Reclaiming the Union Bay Natural Area

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Editor’s note: “Between Two Pines” is a weekly column chronicling the history and ecological restoration of various green spaces around the UW and Seattle area.

As a birding enthusiast, I often find myself wandering to the Union Bay Natural Area. In the warm sunlight, there is nothing more blissful than spotting a rare bird, listening to the tide lap the shore, and appreciating the greenery that surrounds every part of the park.

A lush wetland, the Union Bay Natural Area is nestled between the state Route 520 bridge, residential homes east of University Village, and the Center for Urban Horticulture. Cattails, vetches, and willow catkin grow atop loamy soil, marked by spray paint to track their growth. Bald eagles roost overhead, great blue herons perch in the murky tides, and red-winged blackbirds call out for mates on pleasant spring days. 

The Union Bay Natural Area is more than just a trail or destination for birding. The wetland serves as a crucial research site in understanding how prairies might be restored and is a monument to successful ecological restoration in Seattle — just a few feet underneath the shoes of pedestrians.

Up until the 1990s, the Union Bay Natural Area was known as the Montlake Fill. Its tenure as a landfill began in 1911 near Ravenna Creek to service commerce in the area. The United States Army Corps of Engineers had just matched the water levels between Lake Washington and Lake Union, and the leftover area was treated as a dump because land reclamation was technologically impossible at the time. Rather than let the land go unused, garbage from the project was dumped there. As Seattle expanded throughout the early 20th century, so too did the garbage.

From 1925 to 1966, the Montlake Fill existed solely as a dump. A neighbor to the equally polluted Lake Washington, the growing trash pile caused the land to sink, creating the wetlands that exist today. The native wildlife that had grown there was replaced by invasive species like Himalayan blackberries and Scotch broom. In a publication about the area in 1988, researchers found that over 150 species growing in the area were considered invasive

The situation was dire by the 1990s, but the land proved to be a fertile testing ground for ecological techniques that would eventually bring pedestrians back to the land. 

The grass species Idaho fescue played (and continues to play) a pivotal role in restoring the land, with the natural area becoming recognizably healthier by 2000. From there, the approach to the Montlake Fill was to introduce more native biodiversity and control the invasive species. Even today, there are restoration projects in and around the natural area, with the fescue and other native species marked by spray paint and other surveying tools to ensure that the wetlands continue to heal. 

Visitors to the Union Bay Natural Area can be educated through encounters with gardens, swamps, and trails. Part of the mission for the Union Bay Natural Area is to supply both faculty and students with opportunities to take part in ecological restoration, with available projects serving as reminders of the fragility of nature and symbols of a renewed hope for the natural area.

What I find most interesting about the Union Bay Natural Area is how it provides students and the public with the chance to learn more about ecology and sustainability. Walking around the space is like going to an ecological state fair: there is the Center for Urban Horticulture, which has classes about gardening; the UW Farm, which offers instruction and volunteerships on urban and sustainable farming; and herbariums that identify different kinds of herbs.

The area is a wonderful mix of history and a testament to the benefits of restoration practices. It also engages visitors in engrossing lessons about nature, which I find to be the most appealing aspect.

The next time you go, even if it’s your first visit, I hope you appreciate a little slice of Seattle history that’s just beyond the University Village. Feel the gravel and soil underneath your shoes, and maybe catch sight of a bird or two.

Reach columnist Andy Chia at Twitter: @GreatBaconBaron

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